The Bridge on the River Kwai is a war movie that is often very entertaining, but it sets itself apart from other war movies. Unlike those other movies, this particular film is a provocative film that asks complex questions, but doesn’t answer them easily. It is all up to the audience to believe what happened and why it happened. Of course, everyone may have different opinions and the movie seems to ask for that. Usually in war movies, they are concerned about the bigger picture such as who wins or who loses, which is all very fair questions. But the reason this film works more than most war films is because it poses questions that are deeper than the winner or loser. The movie talks about individualism. It’s not all about who wins or loses the war, but who is in that war and how does war affect the individual.
The most famous quote of the movie is actually the final line of the film. It goes “Madness! Madness!” This quote was nominated by AFI as one of the top 100 quotes of all time. Regardless of that honor, it’s a very effective quote because it sums up the entire movie. Every character is mad in one away or another. The film also has a prominent theme of obsession. The movie is about building a bridge, and Colonel Nicholson (the main character) will do anything it takes to complete the task, even though if it means the Japanese soldiers will use the bridge to try and defeat the Allies, of course which Nicholson belonged with.
This film takes place in 1943, at a Japanese POW camp during the middle of World War Two. The Japanese have captured British soldiers, led by Colonel Nicholson. Nicholson and his soldiers are ordered to build a bridge to accommodate a railway. Nicholson convinces his soldiers to build the bridge for British morality and to show the Japanese what they stand for. But over time, Nicholson develops an obsessive disorder with completing the bridge, which is being seen as collaborating with the enemy. Unknowingly to Nicholson or Saito, there is a plot to destroy the bridge. An American named Shears, a former POW who escaped the camp, is part of the team that is tasked with blowing up the bridge.
If you put the movie on about three-quarters into it, you would be forgiven if you thought Saito and Nicholson were allies. But the a good portion of the beginning of the film, it was quite the opposite. The film opens with Nicholson and his troops being led into the camp and being introduced to Saito. It became clear right away that each man’s morale opposed each other. It also became clear that Nicholson possessed a brave spirit. He endured torture for the sake of his beliefs, and he risked the chance of being killed. One of my favorite scenes in the movie was when Nicholson took out a copy of the Geneva Convention out of his pocket (to prove to Saito that officers don’t have to work on the bridge) and gave it to Saito, in which Saito used it to slap Nicholson across the face drawing blood. Then, he was dragged to “The Oven,” a hut that stands in the fierce sun. But once Nicholson was released, that is when the two men began to work together, drawing up some interesting questions.
My favorite sections of the movie was when Nicholson, played wonderfully by Alec Guinness was onscreen. However, the other half of the film is based on the plot trying to destroy the bridge. Shears was a former POW, but as an escapee and at a local hospital imitating an officer, he is coerced into the plot so his imitation as an officer wont become public. I liked the slow, grueling pace of these scenes, attempting to reach the bridge because it shows what it would be like in reality. It certainly was no picnic. It’s not nearly as convincing as the scenes in the jungle, but it’s good enough.
This film was the film that gave Alec Guinness his Oscar. He gave such an intense performance as the colonel who slowly begins a moral descent, perhaps the only thing that kept him alive. Guinness deserved his Oscar for his powerful performance. William Holden does an expert job in playing a typical American, Shears. He likes the booze and the women, but also is compelled by adventure even if the outcome seems a little murky. I also liked the performance of Sessue Hayakawa, as the strict Japanese commandant. He was actually one of the first Asian stars in Hollywood, from the era of silent film. So it was nice for the film to harken back to its beginning. Finally, the movie boasts excellent supporting turns by Jack Hawkins, as the leader of the crew headed to destroy the bridge and James Donald, the doctor of the camp and the man who questions the sanity of Colonel Nicholson. His expression on his face in the scene where Nicholson recruits sick and injured soldiers to help with the bridge was yet another powerful moment in the film.
The film is directed by David Lean, who excels at directing these kind of big, explosive films. Lean is famously hard to work with. It is on record that Guinness and Lean did not like each other during filming, but somehow Guinness was still able to deliver a powerhouse performance. Despite his personality, Lean is experienced in such films. He delivered a film that is entertaining, but still was able to put important themes and messages in the movie such as what it takes to stay alive under times of duress (such as this war).
Overall, The Bridge on the River Kwai is an incredibly powerful, expertly-made war film that shows how war can make people mad. From start to finish, I was glued to the movie taking in all the excellent performances and a excellent story thanks to the Oscar-winning screenplay by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. One note to mention is this film is not based on historical truth. It’s a fictional story, despite a similar event that actually happened. The only thing that is real is the harsh treatment of the soldiers in the POW camp. Everything about the film: the acting, directing, cinematography, score, and story just screams perfection. This is one of my all-time favorite war movies.
My Grade: A+